Dir. Clark Johnson. US. 2003. 116mins
Backed by another stand-out performance by Colin Farrell and the best tag line of the season - 'Even cops dial 911' - this superior piece of formula film-making should blow the doors off the box office when it opens in the US this weekend (Aug 8). Strong word-of-mouth will lead to greater things before the summer is out while a sharp soundtrack should push the right cross-promotional buttons. While paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the 1970s television series that inspired it, the story is the bog-standard team movie, complete with a dash of betrayal. But because it is obvious how it is going to turn out, screenwriters David Ayer and David McKenna have peppered their screenplay with one-liners that deliver a pinging ricochet while constructing a parallel story line: as the SWAT members train, the bad guy builds from menace into maniac.
Certainly debut feature director Clark Johnson (who cut his teeth on TV hits such as The Shield, The West Wing and NYPD Blue) has earned his stripes, mixing styles and camera angles to generate urgency and the sense of a city throbbing with chaos, whether the view is up at the thumping blades of a police chopper or down on a pulsing aerial photo of Los Angeles. Thankfully, the camera is not always moving and the shots not always cutting.
An opening SWAT operation shows Officers Street (Farrell) and hot-headed Gamble (Renner) breaking the rules and getting their man, but at the expense of a wounded hostage. Street is kicked out of SWAT but Gamble is busted out of the force, making the partners enemies destined to meet again. When Lieutenant Dan 'Hondo' Harrelson (Jackson) is brought in to shape up the disgraced unit, he recognises a kindred kick-ass spirit in Street. All that remains is to recruit some fresh blood, pass the special weapons and tactics test, and take on the evil-doers.
In a neat twist for so shop-worn a genre, their nemesis, an international supermobster named Alex (Martinez), is already in police custody, having been tripped up on a routine traffic violation. But he has issued a $100m reward to whoever can bust him out and stirred up a gold rush amongst the world's bazooka owners.
The script starts to jump the rails when SWAT is assigned to escort Alex to prison - every hood and his brother makes an attempt, suggesting that the LAPD has sprung the Niagara Falls of security leaks. But the action is well-orchestrated and the pace breathless, which should be enough so to keep the core home-town audience in a forgiving mood. Certainly, the choice of a French villain is in keeping with the prevailing wind of US national sentiment. And beware the cop who drinks French champagne.
Yet again Farrell proves himself the best actor of his generation, breathing intensity and conviction into an otherwise stock character. Matched with Jackson, delivering his usual sardonic action performance, their combination is electric and makes for the film's best moments, as each tests the other's mettle.
Michelle Rodriguez and LL Cool J are slick in cardboard roles and Larry Poindexter is particularly good in the normally thank-less role of the nay-saying, paper-pushing police captain - just enough of jerk without going over the top. He delivers lines like 'Sometimes doing the right thing is not doing the right thing' and sounds like he means it.
Prod cos: Camelot Pictures, Original Film, Illusion Entertainment, Chris Lee Prods
US dist: Sony Pictures
Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Prods: Dan Halsted, Chris Lee, Neal H Moritz
Scr: David Ayer, David McKenna, based on characters by Robert Hammer from a story by Ron Mita and Jim McClair
Cinematography: Gabriel Beristain
Prod des: Mayne Berke
Ed: Michael Tronick
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Main cast: Samuel L Jackson, Colin Farrell, Jeremy Renner, Michelle Rodriguez, LL Cool J, Olivier Martinez